What a pleasant quirk of the release calendar that, so soon after Christopher Nolan’s crashing, titanic Dunkirk, we should be offered a more contemplative riposte from Joe Wright. With that film having taken care of the combatant and civilian experience of the Dunkirk evacuation, Darkest Hour now offers that of another chief participant, Winston Churchill.
Gary Oldman takes on this weighty role, both in performance and physicality; gone are the gaunt looks of Sirius Black or Commissioner Gordon, replaced with the famous jowls and podgy hands of our man from the fiver. Oldman carries Darkest Hour, by design, and his charming, unpredictable and forceful rendition is a hugely impressive one. His defiant speeches are delivered with aplomb, his moments of doubt tenderly considered and his interpersonal awkwardness lightly handled.
Darkest Hour takes place over a matter of days in 1940, much like Dunkirk, and shows us less the rise of Winston Churchill, but rather his coronation. He begins the film as a prominent but unpopular figure in Whitehall, replacing the ailing Neville Chamberlain more by the whims of other players than through his own suitability. Once installed as Prime Minister his tribulations step into higher gears. Machinations are afoot, as the beleaguered government considers the possibility of negotiating terms with the Nazi threat.
Churchill’s views tend toward the confrontational, but are couched in a core uncertainty regarding the public’s views on the War. His insecurities, so at odds with the mythologised personality with whom we are likely to be familiar, are the chief source of drama in the film. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Clementine, his acerbic but supportive wife, and as usual does a stellar job despite sadly limited time onscreen. A moment of brief fury from her is one of the film’s very highlights.
The rest of the ensemble is solid enough, and Lily James’s wide-eyed typist provides a useful vehicle in the early phases of the picture. Yet, to match Oldman’s quality, the other principle performer is director Wright’s camera, aided by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot Inside Llewyn Davis. Llewyn‘s striking symmetry and careful framing are recalled here. Though Wright’s signature one-takes are restrained, his camera nonetheless feels alive, swooping through the House of Commons, gliding alongside quotidien roadside scenes, and zooming in and out of scenes of human tragedy that are the consequences of mannered debates in London.
Indeed, a repeated trick is the literal boxing in of Churchill by his surroundings and the framing of shots. In elevators, side-rooms and W.C. cubicles, moments of stress are heightened by this straightforward reflection of the character’s feelings of impotence, a striking and effective technique.
Joe Wright’s films, or his successes at least, have a certain ravishing quality to them, a classical feel; Atonement‘s stifled country sequence and Pride & Prejudice‘s quintessential romanticism alike. Darkest Hour channels a similar energy – it is uncomplicated in its themes and aims, and accomplished in its execution. The film is a fitting, if not exceptional, vessel for a performance of the calibre Oldman brings.